It had to happen some time. And at least that time was after the World Cup. At least if Spain was going to lose, Monumental Stadium in Buenos Aires was as good a place as anywhere. At least the fact that it happened against Argentina, led by the world's best player, was no disgrace. But, still, no one expected it to happen quite like it did Tuesday. No one expected it to be quite so painful.
And for some, swiftly losing perspective, it turned out that it was a disgrace after all.
"I feel," announced the editor of the sports newspaper AS, "like two Spanish destroyers have been sunk." It was, one headline insisted, "a monumental cornada." A goring from the most brutal of bulls. Argentine fans chanted: "Look! Look! Take a photo! They're going back to Spain with their arses broken!"
Even Marca's subsequent insistence that it was "only a friendly," while entirely true, didn't entirely wash. It just sounded like the small child who suddenly insists, midway through a painful defeat in the playground, "Well, I'm not playing properly -- and anyway I don't even like this game." And in part, it didn't wash because the day before, the very same newspaper had declared it "the World Cup final we all wanted."
Only it wasn't the World Cup final they wanted -- mainly because Spain didn't win it. Fifty-seven matches later, Spanish defender Carlos Marchena finally lost. His record unbeaten run, which began June 11, 2003, with a 0-0 draw against Northern Ireland, finally came to an end. Coach Vicente del Bosque lostfor only the third time in 36 matches. Spain was beaten. Not just beaten, in fact, but thumped. It had, declared El País, "crashed back to earth."
By halftime, Spain was down 3-0 -- a situation la Selección had not found itself in since 1987. And much as the TVE commentator spent the whole game insisting that the Spanish could come back -- well, those bits of the game when he wasn't announcing upcoming films and new series, that is -- you knew that they couldn't. The Spanish didn't always play badly -- their passing was crisp, Argentina's third goal was a gift thanks to goalkeeper Pepe Reina's slip, and they hit the post three times -- but they never seriously looked like a threat to get back into the game.
In fact, despite Fernando Llorente's goal, they gave up another one, headed home by Sergio Aguero. Argentina 4, Spain 1. A 1-0 or 2-1 score would have been one thing, but four goals allowed? Four! It was the first time a defending world champion had conceded four since Brazil lost to Bolivia in 1963. It was the first time that Spain had permitted four in almost a decade. Just when the Spanish were supposed to be proudly parading their status as world champions, they had gone and been hammered.
For most, there was just one man responsible for a defeat that hurt more than anyone expected: Vicente del Bosque. Aware that it was just a friendly, he had decided that every member of his squad should get a game. He did not want players traveling halfway across the world to sit around and get bored; he decided that harmony and inclusion were important commodities. That meant no Xavi, Iker Casillas, Fernando Torres, Sergio Ramos or Joan Capdevila in the starting XI, while Carles Puyol had already returned to Spain because of injury. It meant Pepe Reina in goal in the first half, Víctor Valdés in the second half.
It also meant defeat, said AS. "Stupid," declared columnist Joaquín Maroto. Meanwhile, Tomás Roncero -- whose byline photo just screams serious at you, what with his red-and-yellow painted face, flag between his teeth and cheesy victory sign -- called it a "con." Editor Alfredo Relaño criticized Del Bosque for playing his strongest side against Liechtenstein last Friday and not against Argentina rather than the other way around. Even though the former was a competitive game, a qualifier for Euro 2012, and the latter wasn't.
"We were there to promote our World Cup bid for 2016, and that does excuse most things," Relaño wrote, hinting at perhaps the most important yet overlooked issue surrounding this game: Why has the Spanish Federation already forced the national team to travel all the way to Mexico and Argentina before the season has even gotten properly under way? "But," he added, "we gave away our prestige -- and you can't ever do that."
There is, most agreed, no such thing as a friendly against Argentina -- and all the less so if you are the world champions, because everyone really, really wants to beat you. The verdict was virtually unanimous: Spain approached the game like a friendly, Argentina didn't, and Del Bosque's team paid the price. Back in Buenos Aires, one newspaper was demanding that Spain "give the World Cup back."
But that's the thing. Yes, Spain lost prestige; yes, the result hurt. But it didn't lose the World Cup. Crónica can crow and campaign all they like, but there's no giving back the trophy. There will be no unpicking of the recently applied stitches that make up the star on Spain's shirt. This wasn't the World Cup final they all wanted. It wasn't the final at all. As Juan José Anaut said in Marca: "Would we rather go back to the old days when we were the Friendlies World Champions and never won the real tournaments?"
Not that everyone was listening. Time to start up the violins, the heart-wrenching music. Because if Spain hasn't lost the World Cup, it has lost the greatest reward of all: a little girl's love. No, really. Up in northern Spain, the president of the Cantabrian regional government, a man who just can't go a week without saying something silly about soccer, was ringing his hands. Like Helen Lovejoy in The Simpsons, he was squealing moral panic: Won't someone please think of the children?!
Miguel Ángel Revilla claimed that his 10-year-old daughter, Laura, had turned down the chance to watch The Ugly Duckling and instead opted to pull on her Spain shirt and scarf and watch the game with her dad. The result could hardly have been more devastating: The poor little girl's innocence was lost, her heart broken, her soul destroyed. Her faith in humanity left in tatters. Forever. "Why did we need them to make us look so silly?" Revilla said. "How can we explain this to our children, still kitted out in red?" He added: "How can I explain to my daughter that it was only a friendly? How can I explain to her that Casillas wasn't playing?
"Why did you do this to our children?"